Study finds conspiracy theories aren’t all spread by tinfoil-hat-wearing crazies
An exhaustive new study has shed light on how conspiracy theories spread online and who actually believes them.
As conspiracy theories seem more widespread than ever, a team of Australian researchers tried to unravel why the often outlandish beliefs gain widespread appeal.
The researchers forensically examined every entry on the Reddit r/Conspiracy page from 2007 to 2015.
After separating the people who post on the page into various groups, the team was surprised to learn that the traditional ‘monological’ conspiracy theorists, who connect everything to everything else, only accounted for a small, but very vocal, proportion of the people who posted on the page.
“It is commonly believed that conspiracy believers tend to be the kind of people that connect every conspiracy to everything else, like the typical tin foil hat wearing stereotype,” lead researcher Dr. Colin Klein told the Australian news site News.com.au. “We found that there are those people, but they are the tip of a much larger iceberg.”
The study found that conspiracies become popular and widespread when a range of different people connect them to their own previously-held beliefs.
Many people engaged with the theories due to a mistrust of traditional sources of information, and, because of their interactions on the page, they became engaged with increasingly radical ideas.
“We suggest that r/conspiracy looks monological in part because there are many different authors with different sets of concerns, each interacting with one another,” the researchers wrote in the paper.
They suggested that studying the theories that thrive will prove more fruitful than searching for overarching belief systems that connect conspiracy theorists.
“Ultimately, we doubt that there needs to be any particular set of psychological motivations which characterize conspiracy theorists. Some are irrational. Some are irate. Some are epistemically unlucky. Some are racist. Some are skeptical,” the report concludes.
“It is conspiracy narratives that are all-encompassing, pulling in a diverse group of people who may have little in common with one another, each of whom can find what they need in a fragment of the larger tale.”
The report found that the internal logic that is seen in people theorizing has similarities to the delusional thinking that is seen in schizophrenia. The authors say this insight may help researchers unravel how conspiracy theories are formed and how they can be dismantled.
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